Skip to main content

Regency thrills and chills: Jane Austen's "horrid novels"

Do you think that the popularity of dark, scary thrillers is a recent phenomenon? If you do, I’d like to introduce you to the “horrid novels” of the Regency era – just in time to add to your Halloween reading list.

If you read Austen’s Northanger Abbey you’ll find a discussion of seven "horrid" novels that the worldly Isabella Thorpe insists that Catherine Morland, the naïve young heroine, read straight away. Not only were these stories familiar to Jane Austen, she satirizes them in Northanger Abbey. 

In Austen's story, 17-year-old Catherine is heavily influenced by the Gothic novels she reads. As a result  she believes she sees evidence of sinister deeds,  including murder, when she visits her friend's home, Northanger Abbey. Before we can get to a happy ending, Catherine must mature, rein in her imagination and appreciate the difference between fiction and real life. 

The Horrid Novels

Here are the seven Gothic novels (with their actual publication dates) that Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland in Austen's sprightly tale. For over a century scholars thought that Austen made up some of these book titles, but further research proved that all of these books actually did exist. 

  1. The Castle of Wolfenbach, by Eliza Parsons (1793)
  2. Clermont, by Regina Maria Roche (1798)
  3. The Mysterious Warning, by Eliza Parsons (1796)
  4. The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest, by Ludwig Flammenberg (1794)
  5. The Midnight Bell, by Francis Lathom (1798)
  6. The Orphan of the Rhine, by Eleanor Sleath (1798)
  7. The Horrid Mysteries, by Carl Grosse (1796) - translated from German by Peter Will

Austen also has her heroine discuss two other books that were wildly popular at the time: The Italian (1797) and Catherine's favorite, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), both by Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe, an English author whose lifetime encompassed the Regency, is considered a pioneering Gothic novelist, and her five bestsellers made her the highest-paid professional writer of the 1790s. 

Some Characteristics of 18th-19th Century Gothic Novels

Though the storylines and the settings varied somewhat, Gothic fiction during Jane Austen's time had several common characteristics. 

An atmosphere of mystery was a given, along with plenty of drama, fear and suspense. Here are few other important elements that crop up often in these tales:

  • A crumbling, gloomy manor house or castle, preferably haunted, with a mysterious and dark history
  • Paranormal events and/or supernatural manifestations- i.e. ghosts
  • A dastardly villain (dark and brooding, but somehow compelling)
  • A brave hero (who may also be dark and brooding) 
  • A beautiful, persecuted heroine who is also virtuous and brave
  • And, of course, Romance (with a capital R)

Later Gothic fiction also featured monsters, such as Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, and the titular vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula, written in 1897. 

Gothic Fiction and Film Today

Gothic fiction, and especially its sub-genre Gothic horror fiction, is every bit as popular today as it was during the Regency era. Vampires are espeically well-received by the reading public. Notable examples include the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, and Charlaine Harris's  The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which was adapted for television as the HBO series True Blood

Gothic-inspired novels, like many of those written by Stephen King, translate especially well into film and also appeal to modern-day horror fans. So do the marvelously weird and creative films of Tim Burton, including Beetlejuice, Dark ShadowsThe Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and his version of Alice in Wonderland.

I guess it all comes down to whether, or how, you like to be scared, especially on Halloween. As for me, I like humor with my frights. So, on that note I'll leave you with a funny scene from the modern  Gothic film classic Beetlejuice, when a dinner party in a haunted house goes horridly astray. 

Happy Halloween!

Images courtesy of Pixabay


  1. Just when I assumed that today's horror flicks have been conceived in the creative, perhaps even warped, modern minds of this generation's script writers, I find out that the elements for this wildly popular film genre are actually common denominators of the "horrid novels" of Jane Austen's time. Nothing new under the sun, I guess. Still, anyone who can take those six ingredients required to create a Gothic novel and weave them into a compelling story gets high marks for imagination and writing skill.

    It's interesting that the seven "horrid novels" Jane had Isabella Thorpe recommend to Catherine Morland were thought to be an invention. Not so! If I've learned anything about the great Jane Austen, it would be that her stories, her characters, and their situations have their origins much more in fact than in fiction.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang  but a whimper T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him)

Macaroni Men and Yankee Doodles

The Spirit of '76  (original title Yankee Doodle ) by Archibald Willard, painted in the late 1800s November is a month that here in the United States is defined by food, culminating in a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. It's also the month we honor our military veterans. So I'm going to focus on both food and patriotism - especially an Italian pasta product that became synonymous with a controversial English fashion and developed uniquely American associations. "The Macaroni"- 1773 During the 18th century, it was all the rage for young men of the English nobility to take a trip through Europe to soak up its art and culture. It was called the Grand Tour. In Italy, these privileged lads discovered a pasta dish far removed from their usual British fare. It was called maccaroni , and they raved about it when they got back home. The travelers became known as the Macaroni Club, though there is no evidence an actual club ever existed. But it

The Cato Street Conspiracy

The Cato Street conspirators getting arrested Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster.  A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.” The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from th